Math Professors + 3D Printing = Real World Learning

Pythagorean theorem

One of the most well attended preconference sessions at the International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics (ICTCM), held March 2015, was about 3D printing. The steering and program committees, which are comprised of mathematics educators, planned this session based on their experience in the classroom, evaluation of market trends as well as an analysis of research in the field of mathematics. Looking at the number of people in the room, I would say, this session was a definite topic of interest to mathematics educators.

Sitting in the room amongst all of the collegiate brain power I wondered, “Why would university and college mathematics professors be interested in this technology?” So I set to find out. I talked with some of the participants trying to uncover what potential they see in bringing 3D printing into their classrooms. Their perspectives were varied and interesting. Here is what they had to say.

Teachers use computer software to build 3D objects

Teachers use computer software and mathematics equations to build 3D objects.


Keith White, Associate Professor, Developmental Mathematics
Utah Valley University, Utah

“A lot of the math we teach is procedure and skill based. It doesn’t have a lot of application, and when it does the applications are usually contrived. Students know that. They see that. They get that, and anything that we can do to make it more real, and tie it to things that actually have meaning to them would be beneficial. I am trying to figure out how 3D printing might give learning more meaning. I think students would find 3D printing interesting, but not necessarily meaningful. So I am exploring in order to see, in the context of a developmental math course or a general education math course, could you integrate 3D printing in a way that would reinforce mathematical concepts, while simultaneously increasing the motivation and interest level of students?”

Sharon Sledge, Professor, Department of Mathematics
San Jacinto College, Texas

“I teach calculus, so 3D printing is a way to associate the three-dimensional side when we do volumes of solids, or when we revolve them over some axis so they can see what it looks like. It is also a great way to look at surface area for those same models. So in calculus classes, it is very helpful. In Calculus 3, when you go from a two-dimensional world to a three-dimensional world, it is perfect to help students see. Definitely in my calculus classes we would use 3D printers. Our college students are excited to experiment with it and see what they can create. The math behind 3D printing is very appropriate for our college students; it is awesome to tie the mathematics of it with them.”

Lila Roberts, Academic Dean
Clayton State University, Georgia

“I have a hard time visualizing three-dimensional objects. In calculus classes, we have two-dimensional representations on paper that authors sketch to give a 3D perspective. But I think it means so much for students to actually see the three-dimensional object. The interesting thing about 3D printing is that so much of the mathematics is a part of the 3D printing process. You have to design your object. For my 3D printer, I use mathematical software to generate the three-dimensional object, convert it to a file type the printer recognizes and export it to the printer. So students can see that the object is built using mathematical equations. Many of our students want to be engineers; they enjoy being able to create something. So I think it is rewarding for them to be able to see the outcome with 3D printing.”

Arunas Dagys, Professor, Department of Mathematics
St. Xavier University, Illinois

“It would be great to use it in a multivariable calculus class if you had 3D objects. Although you wonder if there isn’t a better way of doing that? I wonder if there is something I can do with the virtual world or holographic images that will be just as effective as 3D printing. My suspicion is that although it will be useful in the engineering field for prototypes or testing things, I am not so sure that burning plastic filaments, which I am kind of hung up on, is really the best route to go for 3D visualization. I tend to think that a holographic system would be a much more natural way to proceed here than to think 3D printing is going to generate a way for students to see things more visually.”

Bowen Brawner, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics
Tarleton State University, Member of the Texas A&M University System, Texas

“I read that NASA was the single biggest purchaser of MakerBot’s 3D printers, so we realized that our students need to be using them as well. We wrote a research grant and purchased a 3D printer that is in the classroom for students to use. I have not uploaded any code; all of the students have done that. They have researched and learned all of the programs, how to set it up, how to interface with it, and have navigated all of the problems with it. They even designed and built an improved extruder. So many problems within Calculus 1 to Calculus 3 can be turned into hands-on learning experiences.”

Jacque Davison, Associate Professor of Mathematics
Anderson University, South Carolina

“I am particularly interested in 3D printing because I teach multivariable calculus and we study three-dimensional shapes, functions, and the equations that generate them. I usually have them do a project where they produce the best pictures they can of certain 3D shapes. Of course, it has all been two dimensional shapes up to this point. I have used different software, but they are still two dimensional. So instead of saying find or generate the best 2D picture you can, to be able to say generate the actual model, print it, and turn it in sounds amazing to me, and I would love for that to happen.”

Brian Jean, Professor of Mathematics
Taft Community College, California

“I teach statistics through Calculus 3. The main thing that got me interested in this was to think about the surfaces that we use in Calculus 3. Students are able to use software to create the surfaces, which we do now, but then to actually print them and actually handle them would be great. Stuff like saddle points or intersecting planes, looking at them on the screen and actually handling them are two different things. So the whole idea is to go from equations to something real.”

As the technology continues to improve, it will be interesting to see in 10 years what else teachers, students, and industry professionals can do with 3D printing. Just as learning by doing is helping students connect with STEM subjects, Pearson has partnered with maker space Makerversity to offer teachers more tools to bring maker education into their core subject lessons. Read more about our partnership with Makerversity and how students of all ages can take a hands-on approach to learning.